The question of how to get started in technical writing has come up several times, so here is some very basic information.
First, technical writer can be a vague, even misleading term. Just about everything that isn’t fiction could, and often does, fall under the heading of technical writing.
Some tech writers specialize more than others. We are not all, as some have implied, frustrated wannabe engineers who couldn’t otherwise cut it in the engineering field.
Many fields require a technical writer’s communications abilities and knowledge:
- from aerospace projects to amusement park rides
- from software documentation to web page writing
- from environmental manuals to cereal boxes
- from botany and zoology textbooks to medical device user guides
- from computer based tutorials to consumer brochures.
This link will take you to the California Employment Development Department’s occupational guide for technical writers, though it may give a county name at the top of the page. A longer list of guides is also available.
Most of the detailed information provided in the occupational guide is very accurate, covering educational requirements, job outlook and working environment. There is some wishful thinking about work atmosphere and availability, given the existing economy, but things are starting to improve.
There is a great deal of wishful thinking about salary range!! Most technical writers earn well below the 25th percentile since industries hire for as cheap as they can get in a tough economy. And they do not make up the difference between what they pay and the fair amount you should be earning as the years go by. For example, Ventura County’s current listed annual salary as $55,877 is way above what most technical writers make in say, the financial or insurance industries. Even the median of $81,160 is not as common as median would indicate, that is, half fall below that and half are above. And of course, the majority of corporations forbid employees from asking what co-workers are being paid. On the other hand, sometimes the higher-paid employees are the ones to be cut during layoffs. So perhaps it “equals out”. Perhaps.
The description also contains other resources for information, such as STC (Society for Technical Communication), NWU (National Writers Union), and NASW (National Association of Science Writers). Additional resources are ASI (American Society for Indexing), AMWA (American Medical Writers Association), and other professional organizations you can locate via Google or other search engines.
Increasing attention is being paid by state colleges and universities to providing degrees or certificates in technical writing. This is a 180-degree change in attitude from say, 20 years ago, when you could hardly find a course in technical writing in the catalogs. In all fairness, most students simply weren’t signing up for such “boring” classes, so courses were often dropped for that reason. But it took some time for academia to recognize the massive impact technology would have on society and to address the issue. Various facets of society tend to be behind the curve on many advances in its midst.
Online courses are also available, as well as some old-fashioned evening classes at a college near you. The former will probably be easier to find, unless you can attend at least some classes during the day. Physical satellite campus classes may not be what you need. It varies across the country.
If you think you’d like to know more gritty details about the daily life of a tech writer, find your local STC chapter, or AMWA chapter if you lean toward medical writing. Use the contacts listed in the EDD page mentioned above.